Waving the White Flag


Out in the park there is an unscooped dog poo with a tiny Australian flag toothpicked into it. This delicately placed little ensign has given me nationalist yearnings on this, Australia Day. ‘That’s the spirit’, I find myself thinking.

I am bracing for another day of fatuous flag waving by white Australians on Australia Day. In years past, Australian flag wavers have all been white people. Every. Last. One I Saw. The media was, of course, at pains to show Australians of non-Anglo descent under the Cronulla Cape. They embodied Multiculturalism, and shrinking parts of our media still make an effort at being inclusive. Good try.

But it wasn’t representative.

Last year I took a broad survey looking behind the windscreens of every flag-bearing hearse, I mean car, from here to Angelsea, noting all the beach flag paraphernalia on the way. How well our navy blue goes with alabaster, freckled and scorched complexions.

A few years back I took another survey at the Big Day Out, the year the organizers created a furor by requesting punters be sensitive to multiculturalism and leave their flags at home. Implicitly they guessed only white Australians would swathe themselves in our flag. And that everyone but them can see that.

They were of course roundly accused of denying people’s freedom of expression, and that old chestnut of inanity, of ‘political correctness’.

Tell me someone, anyone: how isn’t it political to swathe yourself in your national flag? Isn’t it being correct to one of the most overt expressions of political allegiance?

But just to be sure I questioned a couple of these sprightly young nationalists. Everywhere one looked that Southern Cross had fluttered down from the national mast, and shrouded more parts of the body politic than ever foreseen by our fallen servicemen. Given that flags are generally used as shrouds, it certainly is a revival.

So I stood tippy-toed within a stand of young men, who explained they hadn’t taken the flag off since Australia Day and had been sleeping with them. I ventured to ask, did they prefer them on top, and they said, rather quixotically, ‘well, you have to get by somehow’ and made oblique references to inflatables – perhaps they meant boxing Kangaroos.

‘Oz Pride!’ another group explained and said that for them, Australia was ‘this’ – that is, getting shitfaced and shouldering swaying girls to imported bands. Fine. I’m up for that kind of nationalism. But then they said that wearing the flag was about ‘mates’ and when I asked did they leave their Chinese, Aboriginal, Indian, etc mates at home, they simply replied, by way of explanation, ‘We’re from Tasmania’.

Tattooed Australian flags are becoming so popular one parlour alone is tattooing 12 ‘Aussie Swazis’ a week.

None of this solves the mystery of this epidermal bar in our flag-waving habits. So I leafed through some tomes with big words.

Nationalism is a cultural artefact, and these nations we belong to so fervently, are imagined communities. Worse, we conflate nations with race. If predominantly white people in Australia wave our flag what kind of a nation are they inventing and reinventing? One that confuses being Australian with being white.

But I think their intentions are honorable. I don’t think they’ve noticed their flag-waving comrades are overwhelmingly white, and most of them would be non-plussed and even delighted to see Australians of non-Anglo descent waving the flag. Because any expression of inclusion can invent a community of deep and genuine comraderie.

The thing is, they’re not. So why has white flag-waving resurged right in the era of globalization? Right at the time we have shored up our borders to refugees and a strong anti-immigration sentiment sits along the benches of both sides of our parliament?

Let’s blame Abbott (even when we burn the toast). Abbott’s pronouncements of white pride are part of his never having quite shaken off the cloak of white Australia. This flag-waving generation are his mentors, Howard’s invention and the indelible mark he left on the nation.

Racial homogeneity runs deep in Australia. Aside from trying to ‘breed out the colour’ by removing ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal kids from their communities, the central policy platform of our country from 1901 until 1973 was the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia policy. It was, our first Prime Minister said, a ‘declaration of a racial identity’. But most white Australians see whiteness as a non-colour. Certainly it isn’t a racial identity for them.

“The position of speaking as a white person is one that white people never acknowledge and this is part of the condition and power of whiteness,” says Richard Dyer.

So the question has to be asked, do Australians of non-Anglo descent feel uncomfortable waving the flag? Since it seems they do, then why don’t white Australians notice? More importantly, has this even been a part of whites feeling more comfortable waving the flag?

Dyer has an answer to this. He says “whiteness needs to be made strange” and strange to itself. The ways that whiteness is triumphal, narcissistic and, given our history, amnesiac, needs to be exposed.

A flag in dog poo is very strange, but it’s also irreverent and mocking of staid and unexamined expressions of an older, excluding Australia. That’s the spirit.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.